(12) Watching the Natives

The Mora Campaign (269-1119 to 288-1119)

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269-1119 : Mora / Mora / Spinward Marches

    Discussions about the aliens continue.  First Officer Misha Ravanos' expertise is in actually going down and investigating in person; that option is not available for Helia Sarina, as she's far too valuable as the pilot of the HMS Third Eye.

    Misha, Robert, and Helia talk about picking up any sort of emissions from the planet.  They have seen nothing so far, on any band -- the only thing that has registered anything has been Marquis Marcus Crestworthy's psionic sensors.
    Misha asks the Captain if there's any way to communicate psionically with them.
    The Marquis replies that telepathic communication is difficult, and isn't supposed to be possible with non-humans.  The range is prohibitive, and there's no way to relay psionics or anything.  The state of the art on the sensors is to determine whether there's psionic activity going on or not, and at what level, not even what sort of activity.
    Misha says that the creatures are clearly intelligent, based on the structures they've built.
    Marquis Marc tells him that there's an ongoing discussion between the zoologists and anthropologists over that very subject.  For one thing, the presence of those creatures in the village doesn't mean that they built it.  Secondly, the zoologists point out that there has been no behavior exhibited that requires intelligence -- but likewise nothing that contradicts it.  They need more information.
    Making contact with the natives was not, of course, in the original mission plan.  In fact, the mission was supposed to avoid letting the natives know they are here.  Obviously that failed when the creatures attacked the probes...

    Misha later continues the discussion in private with the Marquis.  Their psionics make them worth investigating from the point of view of his research.  This wasn't the creature he was expecting to find -- he reviews the turtle rumor for Misha -- but they are definitely interesting.  The probes have seen the turtle too, but haven't seen any evidence of the potentially psionic behavior.

    Misha's approach is that leveling the village, and seeing if and how they build a new one, might indicate how intelligent they were.  Helia objects strongly to anything like that.

    The Marquis suggests that they wait until it gets warmer, so they can observe the creatures more easily.  It won't be long before the snow starts to melt.  He also contemplates dropping a psionic sensor somewhere else on the planet, like where the gcarrier crashed, to see if there's any activity there.
    His final decision is to drop the ocean sensors in place, then wait for a week to see what information they can gather.  There are no objections.

    William Avon fires off the ocean probes; the better one takes up position fine, but the other stops sending when it hits the water surface.

    The Marquis decides to wait before launching the hardened psi probe; they will only be able to make another half dozen probes, and he wants to conserve them this early into the mission.  Mich and Robert are directed to prepare the remaining six, allowing space for sensor packages.  They do a fine job of putting together a design for a modular probe, where sensor packages can be slipped in easily.

276-1119 : Mora / Mora / Spinward Marches

Game Notes: The campaign has progressed for some time, with all characters being quite active.  In lieu of a definite experience system, all characters are awarded one skill level in something they've exercised extensively.
Akim Gavrolovitch : Gravcraft
Alice Waterford : Gambling
William Avon : Gunnery
Baron Bridgehead : Psionicology
David Markland : Engineering
Helia Sarina : Pilot
Jenny Roberts : Engineering
Marquis Marcus Crestworthy : Parapsychology
Mich Saginaw : Engineering
Misha Ravanos : Environment Combat
Robert Morris : Sensor
Teri Cralla : Instruction
Vonish Kehnaan : Pilot
The Reindog : ???
Sagan : ???

    The week passes quietly.  Among the crew, a lot of card playing goes on, while the scientists avidly devour all the data being relayed back.
    The zoologists are still delighted with all the data rolling in, including from the successful ocean sensor.
    Robert has been working with the Hiver computers.  He has picked up a fairly good idea of the layout of information, and the architecture of the system, but is severely limited by the ability to understand the hiver language.  The techniques he's learnt, however, have vastly expanded his skill in decrypting human-based secure systems, and in penetrating deliberately obscure architectures, such as (hypothetically) Imperial naval base systems.  He is now a pretty decent authority on hiver computer systems.

283-1119 : Mora / Mora / Spinward Marches

    Another week passes.  Robert has made more progress with the hiver systems.  With some more clues about data representation, he could unlock a lot of stuff; but without the clues he's pretty much reaching his limits -- and the hivers aren't giving out any clues.

    The village now is clear of snow.  It's a collection of stone huts, but not a great deal of detail is visible at this altitude.  The Marquis orders a regular (non-psionic) probe to be prepared so they can get some data for the anthropologists.  The probe has a rough ride down, but it does take up position properly.
    There are creatures moving in and out.  They resemble snakes with a large number of small legs.  The diameter and length of the body seems to vary, and the skin seems to ripple.  The size varies from two to three meters in length.  The entrance to the hut seems to be at ground level -- there's a flat stone that they come up under from.  There are no clothes, and no sign of them carrying anything.
    The buildings are nicely fitted rock; Misha had seen marks as if they had been chipped to shape.
    The creatures go off singly or in groups of up to six.  They return, sometimes with the body parts of some other creature.  The body parts are being carried in their mouths -- their posture varies from S-shaped while holding their burden in the air, to traveling along the ground.  The zoologists can identify one of the body part sources -- a large herbivore (also observed at the other site), about ten times the size of the creatures, hacked up into many pieces.
    So far nothing indicates more than animal intelligence.

    The Marquis goes over all the data records, and verifies that the number of creatures that left always returned -- they have.  None showed any obvious injury.
    Misha suggests going down again -- and the Marquis agrees that following a hunting party would give valuable information.  The Marquis, however, is concerned that they could attack at a large distance.  Misha counters by suggesting that if they go down with no psionics, and don't get too close, that they might not attack at all.
    The Marquis reviews the official first contact procedures.  It is clear that the mission has already acted well outside the cautious official standard operations.  He's reminded of the neural activity sensors -- but of course they have very limited range, and readings of semi-intelligent and very primitive come out much the same, so it's not clear exactly what use the sensors might be.
    In fact, official first contact procedures -- and precautions -- have been pretty much ignored.  Direct contact, lack of decontamination, and so on.
    Now as for the NAS operation, the gcarrier is equipped with one.  A team could do a flyby and try for some readings.
    Helia suggests putting some object, such as the Rubik's cube she produces from her toy bag -- or perhaps a large black monolith -- into the village and seeing what they do with it.
    The Marquis also suggests that sending a probe down to the other village might be a useful exercise.

    The Marquis realizes that the creatures have not been following regular paths from the village -- in fact, they seem to be deliberately avoiding laying down trails.  They are moving so as to make sure they aren't passing over the same ground all the time.
    Marquis Marc directs that one of the remaining probes will be put down at the village, and follow the first large hunting party to leave the village.  The current probe will remain on station, while the following one will be flown remotely from the Third Eye by Helia.

284-1119 : Mora / Mora / Spinward Marches

    Mich and Robert prepare the new mobile probe.

285-1119 : Mora / Mora / Spinward Marches

    Avon launches the mobile probe and delivers it on station at the village.  Now it's up to Helia to fly it to follow the next hunting party; she sets up the copilot station to run it -- a full video game setup!

    A hunting party of five creatures leaves the village.  Helia starts the mobile probe following them.  A little way outside the village, one of the creatures stops and looks directly at the probe.  Another one of them dives into the ground, while the other three also stare at the probe.
    A view of the mobile probe from the static probe shows no abnormalities.
    Helia starts to bring up the probe, but it's responding quite sluggishly.  Mich reports that all systems are working correctly, but Helia is having problems pulling it up.
    Still, it does ascend.  As it gains altitude, it responds better, and soon Helia brings it to orbit.
    The hunting party is still in sight of the other sensor -- they return to the village, including the digging one, which surfaces before going into the village.  There's no real visible difference in the one that went underground; all of them, however, seem slightly darker in color than the ones in earlier videos.

    Helia flies the Third Eye over to the probe, opens the back door, and backs the ship over it.  Mich is there in the bay ready to secure it (which he does).  The Marquis comes back to check on it -- he wants to see, hear, and smell it in an atmosphere.
    Mich fires it up.  The "stealth" lights flash, it hums, and does a remarkably good impression of a disco ball.

    For some reason, the connections in the probe were a really sloppy job.  The Marquis decides to wait a couple of days before relaunching it.  He also directs that the probe that's on station should be raised a good bit higher.  All the natives seem to have gone into the huts -- there's no activity visible.

286-1119 : Mora / Mora / Spinward Marches

    Mich repairs the defective probe and carefully goes over it to check everything.  He doesn't want a repeat of such a bad failure.

    The Marquis would like to put together a probe with ground penetrating radar, but the Third Eye doesn't contain any appropriate components -- after all, in these days of densitometers, why bother?  Marc makes a note to add that equipment to the stores for the next expedition.  It looks like the gcarrier is their only option -- it is, after all, why a Kankurir-class gcarrier is standard complement on this ship.

287-1119 : Mora / Mora / Spinward Marches

    Marc puts together a team to take the gcarrier down.  They'll make a night-time pass.  The away team will consist of the senior anthropologist (to run the NAS); someone to run the densitometer (Robert); a gravcraft driver (Akim); and a commander (Misha).  But first, he runs Akim and Robert through a battery of questions, asking them things like whether they've seen ghosts, whether they are lucky at cards or dice, or whether their girlfriends comment that they seem to know what they're thinking.  Whatever Marc was looking for, he seems to be satisfied -- the crew stands as initially selected.

    The plan is for a 500m altitude pass, slowly enough to get good readings from the sensors.  The anthropologist wants it to be very slow indeed -- they settle on 5kph.

    Akim backs the gcarrier from the bay and heads down to the village.  It's a flawless mission -- Akim drives the gravcraft perfectly, and the sensor operators get excellent readings.

    The data is interesting indeed.  The NAS reveals 40 - 60 life forms, and gets a distinct "Intelligent" reading -- not even semi-intelligent or primitive.
    The densitometer reveals that the mounds are the top level of a 10 m deep pit.  There are indications of some internal structure, perhaps flooring or something.  There are passages of various sizes interconnecting the whole thing underground.  One of the pits opens out underneath to a much wider area, about twice the hut diameter -- the others all just match the hut diameter.  The doorways are a channel, about 50cm, that runs underneath a flat stone at the base of the hut.  It does look like they're made for the creatures.
    The rock used for the building structure is different from the locally occurring rock, which is very soft -- soft enough that some of the tunnels have been dug through it.  The cap rocks are much harder, and have apparently been cut and brought here.  The zoologists, when asked, say that it is unlikely that the cap stones could have been chewed to shape -- but the local rock is soft enough to be chewed.

    The Marquis wonders about whether these creatures built this village all by themselves, or if something else built it, or if they stole the rocks to build it.  There's insufficient evidence for any of these, except that the physical size does seem to match their stature.
    The creatures do, however, deliberately obscure their trails.  Clearly they don't want their location to be known by something that can follow the trail.  That's not normally instinctive behavior.

288-1119 : Mora / Mora / Spinward Marches

    Time to send down the follow-probe to observe a hunting party...  and a stationary probe at the other village.  They launch successfully and take up station.
    The Marquis also sets the computer attempting to identify individuals based on color variations and so on.

    The probe at the original village observes something -- simultaneously, one comes up from the door of each of six huts, and looks up into the air.  They stay perfectly still for about ten minutes, then head off together.
    Helia takes control of the probe and follows the hunting party.  Marc hopes it's successful; about 60% of the groups that go out don't come back with anything -- but all the larger groups come back with something.
    The group heads off over the badlands.  The terrain gets more broken -- ravines, gullies, and so on.  Helia continues to track them.
    Eventually they reach a ravine -- it's been eroded through the soft rock, with boulders and so on at the bottom.  It looks like it's carried flood waters at some point.
    The crew watch the creatures take up position in hiding on both sides of the stream.  To cross the stream, they stretch out -- elongate -- over and then pull the back across.  It looks like they're very flexible, without a stiff skeleton.
    Both the creatures and the crew watch and wait.  The creatures keep watch, looking off into the distance upstream.

    After about fifteen minutes, something approaches fairly rapidly from upstream.  It's quite large, around 200kg, sort of like a conical tube.  It gets about 20m from the creatures and suddenly collapses.  There's no apparent cause -- it just collapses with a flumph.  The creatures all come out of hiding and cut it up with their teeth.  They flop it over and start cutting meat out of the underside.  Four of them cut meat, handing it to the other two which stack it.
    The limbs also extend and retract, and appear to have opposable digits.  They're using them to pass the meat around.
    The creatures continue to strip the carcass until they have a full load for everyone, then carry it back to the village.

    The probe is left watching the carcass -- for the zoologists to observe scavengers and so on -- as the creatures return to the village.

    The Marquis turns to the crew on the bridge.  "What happened to that creature," he says, "Is what happened to me before.  They psionically attacked it, then cut it up.  If they psionically attacked you guys when you were down there, that's what would happen to you."